Israel And The G-word: We Need A Better Word Than 'Occupation'
28 October 2014
By Jonathan Cook
Israeli officials were caught in a revealing lie late
last month as the country celebrated the Jewish New
Year. Shortly after declaring the most popular boy's
name in Israel to be "Yosef", the interior ministry
was forced to concede that the top slot was actually
filled by "Mohammed".
That small deceit coincided with
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas' speech at the
United Nations. He outraged Israelis by referring to
Israel's slaughter of more than 2,100 Palestinians –
most of them civilians – in Gaza over the summer as
Both incidents served as a reminder of
the tremendous power of a single word.
Most Israelis are barely able to contemplate the
possibility that their Jewish state could be producing
more Mohammeds than Moshes. At the same time, and
paradoxically, Israel can point to the sheer number of
"Mohammeds" to demonstrate that at worst it is
eradicating the visibility of a Muslim name, certainly
not its bearers.
As distressing as it is, hundreds of
dead in Gaza is far from the industrial-scale murder
of the Nazi Holocaust.
But the idea that Israel is committing genocide may
not be quite as hyperbolic as is assumed. Last month a
"jury" featuring international law experts at a
people's court, known as the Russell Tribunal, into
Israel's recent attack on Gaza concluded that Israel
was guilty of "incitement to genocide".
The panel argued that Israel's
long-term collective punishment of Palestinians seemed
to be designed to "inflict conditions of life
calculated to bring about the incremental destruction
of the Palestinians as a group".
The tribunal's language intentionally
echoed that of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew and lawyer
who after fleeing Nazi Europe succeeded in introducing
the term "genocide" into international law.
Lemkin and the UN convention's drafters
understood that genocide did not require death camps;
it could also be achieved gradually through
intentional and systematic abuse and neglect. Their
definition raises troubling questions about Israel's
treatment of Gaza, aside from military attacks. Does,
for example, forcing the enclave's two million
inhabitants to depend on acquifers polluted with sea
water constitute genocide?
The real problem with Abbas' use of the
term – given that it conflicts with popular notions of
genocide – is that it made him an easy target for
critics. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,
accused the Palestinian leader of "incitement". The
Israeli left, meanwhile, decried his wild and
But the critics themselves have
contributed more heat than light.
Not only do experts like Richard Falk and John Dugard
view Israel's actions in genocide-like terms, but
notable Israeli scholars have done so too. The late
Baruch Kimmerling invented a word, "politicide", to
convey more safely the idea of an Israeli genocide
Israel has nonetheless successfully
ringfenced itself from the critical lexicon applied to
comparable situations around the globe.
In conflicts where a mass expulsion of
an ethnic or national group occurs, it is rightly
identified as ethnic cleansing. In Israel's case,
however, respectable historians still equivocate over
the events of 1948, even though more than 80 per cent
of Palestinians were forced out by Israel as it
established a Jewish state on their homeland.
Similarly with "apartheid". For decades
anyone who used the word about Israel was dismissed as
an extremist or anti-Semite. Only in the last few
years – and chiefly because of former US president
Jimmy Carter – has the word gained a tentative
Even then, its main use is as a warning
rather than a description of Israel's behaviour:
die-hard adherents of two states aver that Israel is
in danger of becoming an apartheid state at some
indefinable moment if it does not separate from the
Instead, we are told to suffice with
the label "occupation". But that implies a temporary
state of affairs, a transition before normality is
restored – precisely the opposite of what is happening
in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, where the
occupation is entrenching, morphing and metastasizing.
Those guarding the critical lexicon
strip us of a terminology to convey the appalling
reality faced by Palestinians, not just as individuals
but as a national group. In truth, Israel's strategy
incorporates variants of ethnic cleansing, apartheid
Observers, including the European
Union, concede that Israel continues with incremental
ethnic cleansing – though they prefer the more obscure
"forcible transfer" – of Palestinians from so-called
Area C, nearly two-thirds of the West Bank, the bulk
of any future Palestinian state.
Israel has mastered too a sophisticated
apartheid – partly veiled by its avoidance of the more
visual aspects of segregation associated with South
Africa – that grabs resources, just like its famous
cousin, for one ethnic-national group, Jews, at the
expense of another, Palestinians.
But unlike South African apartheid,
whose fixed legal and institutional systems of
separation gradually became torpid and unwieldy,
Israel's remains dynamic and responsive. Few observers
know, for example, that almost all residential land in
Israel is off-limits to Palestinian citizens, enforced
through vetting committees recently given sanction by
the Israeli courts.
And what to make of a plan just
disclosed by the Israeli media indicating that
Netanyahu and his allies have been secretly plotting
to force many Palestinians into Sinai, with the US
arm-twisting the Egyptians into agreement? If true,
the bombing campaigns of the past six years may be
better understood as softening-up operations before a
mass expulsion from Gaza.
Such a policy would certainly satisfy
Lemkin's definition of genocide.
One day doubtless, a historian will coin a word to
describe Israel's unique strategy of incrementally
destroying the Palestinian people. Sadly, by then it
may be too late to help the Palestinians.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha
Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest
books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations:
Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East"
(Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: Israel's
Experiments in Human Despair" (Zed Books). His website